‘No one can ever tell me we don’t exist’: Dual victims caught in the cracks of Pa.’s criminal justice system deserve recognition | John L. Micek

A woman holds a sign calling for an end to death by incarceration during a rally in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on 10/23/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Don’t try to tell Lorraine Haw that she’s not a crime victim.

In fact, she says, she’s been victimized twice. Her brother was killed by gunfire. And her only son, Phillip, is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

She’s lived decades without him — feeling the pain of not having him by her side.

“There’s this thing called a dual victim, and I’m one of them,” Haw, of Philadelphia, said during a packed rally in the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday afternoon. “No one will ever tell me that we don’t exist.”

Like two sides of a coin, Haw and others like her say there’s nothing incompatible about the notion of considering themselves twice victimized: once by the accused — and convicted — killer of their loved ones, and then again by an incomprehensible criminal justice system that condemned family members to the effective living death of endless imprisonment — where they sit without hope of redemption or eventual release.

So they gathered by the hundreds on Wednesday — filling the Capitol rotunda’s main staircase, the balcony above, and the floor below — to call for legislative solutions to both the epidemic of gun violence that plagues every Pennsylvania community and for an end to mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain crimes.

These crime victims have lost loved ones to murder — and to prison. That’s why they want to end life without parole in Pennsylvania 

Bills in the state House and Senate seek to break that logjam by allowing someone sentenced to life in prison to be considered for parole after 15 years in prison. It would also extend that privilege retroactively to those sentenced before any such law takes effect.

Backers say such a measure will offer hope to lifers who have mended their ways and learned from mistakes made decades ago.

Those proponents include the Rev. Larry Anderson, pastor of Great Commission Church in Philadelphia, who said Wednesday that a “system that profits from men’s failures is a failed system.”

In a lot of ways, “dual” victims such as Haw and Kimberly King — an attendee who lost one brother to gun violence, and another to a life sentence for second-degree murder — are stand-ins for Pennsylvania’s own conflicted approach to criminal justice reform.

There’s no doubt the state has made a quantum leap since the Get Tough years of the mid-1990s, when penalties and state prison populations skyrocketed. Over the past decade, state officials, driven both by budgetary concerns and evolutions in thought, have started getting smarter about criminal justice policy.

But there are still so many ways the state continues to trip itself up. For every step forward in how Pennsylvania deals with low-level drug offenders — steering them into treatment, not jail — or provides job and education opportunities to former inmates reentering society, there’s a step or two backward.

That approach was brought to vivid life by an ACLU report last week revealing that Pennsylvania’s crimes code is packed with duplicative and harmful charges that drive up costs and don’t serve the cause of justice. This week, the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison further reported that some observers now fear that any savings gleaned from a sweeping criminal justice reform package could be scuttled by a push for tougher mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.

Even the way Pennsylvania treats dual victims is reflective of this tension.

As a matter of law, Pennsylvania’s appointed victim advocate, Jennifer Storm, says her office can only provide services to someone who is either a victim of crime or a homicide survivor. A person with a family member serving a life term without parole is not eligible for such services, she said Wednesday.

Storm’s published remarks about that policy, which appeared in the Capital-Star, frustrated and enraged attendees at Wednesday’s rally, who steadfastly maintain that the plight of their incarcerated loved ones renders them victims — no matter what the law says.

Haw called on Storm, a vocal advocate for the proposed pro-crime victims amendment known as Marsy’s Law, to leave office because she’s not representing their interests. She’s a plaintiff in a case to keep the measure from taking effect if it passes on Nov. 5.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Storm said she was sympathetic to Haw and others who have been forced to live their lives without some family members.

“I would never discount someone’s pain from their loss of a loved one — regardless of how that loss transpired in their lives. It’s brutal. It’s gut-wrenching,” she said, adding that Haw, King, and others who have lost family to violent crime are eligible for services through her office.

In an interview with the Capital-Star earlier this week, the CNN personality Van Jones, who’s become a forceful advocate for probation reform, called Pennsylvania’s current system a “Kafkaesque hell,” so riddled with pitfalls that it’s nearly impossible for former offenders to avoid violations that land them back in jail.

Rally-goers Wednesday were quick to point out that they’re not looking to empty the jails. But they are looking for the one thing that justice is supposed to do when it is properly administered: provide punishment, sometimes harsh, and then offer hope of rehabilitation and redemption for those who are truly trying to make a go of it.

It’s a balance that is titanically difficult to achieve on the best day. But it’s one we have to keep trying for. The alternative is vengeance. And we all lose there.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.